Electroacupuncture May Ease Hormonal Therapy Side Effects Such As Fatigue, Anxiety and Depression

Breast Cancer News
December 16, 2014
Erin Rowley, Writer and Content Coordinator
Reviewed By: 
Ting Bao, MD, DABMA, MS

A recent small study found that electroacupuncture significantly lessened fatigue, anxiety and depression among postmenopausal woman with aromatase inhibitor-related joint pain.

Background and Goals

The most common subtype of breast cancer is hormone receptor-positive, meaning breast cancer cells are sensitive to hormones such as estrogen and projesterone, and grow in the presence of these hormones. Treatment involves hormonal therapy, medicines that lower the amount of estrogen in the body or blocks estrogen receptors. Aromatase inhibitors, including anastrozole (Arimidex), letrozole (Femara), or exemestane (Aromasin), lower estrogen in postmenopausal woman by greater than 90 percent.

But aromatase inhibitors can cause side effects, such as joint pain. Past research shows breast cancer pain is linked to fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety and depression. Some people use complementary therapies, nonmedical treatment used in addition to standard medicines, to manage side effects. Recently, researchers studied the use of electroacupuncture (EA), in which pulses of weak electrical current are sent through the skin at specific points on the body using thin needles, in women who had aromatase inhibitor-related joint pain.


The 67 participants

  • had early-stage breast cancer
  • were taking an aromatase inhibitor
  • had joint pain for at least 3 months that they said was caused by the aromatase inhibitor

They were randomly assigned to one of three groups:

  • EA, which received standard treatment and electroacupuncture
  • SA, which received standard treatment and sham electroacupuncture, done with non-electrified, non-penetrating needles on non-acupuncture points away from the painful joints
  • Wait list control (WLC), which received standard treatment only

In the acupuncture groups, the treatment was given twice weekly for 2 weeks, then weekly for 6 more weeks. Participants were evaluated every few weeks during treatment, and then 4 weeks after treatment, about fatigue, sleep and mental distress.


Researchers found that women who had joint pain caused by an aromatase inhibitor were highly more likely to feel fatigued. They were also moderately more likely to have sleep problems and depression.

Compared to the WLC group, the EA group saw significant improvements in fatigue, anxiety and depression. The SA group saw significant improvements in depression, but not in the other side effects. 


Researchers say these results should be considered preliminary because of the trial’s small size and because 12 percent of participants failed to complete the trial. They say the findings should be confirmed by a large trial with longer follow-up.

What This Means for You

Only about half of women who are prescribed hormonal therapy take the correct dose for the full recommended time. This is often because of side effects. Not following your doctor’s instructions can make recurrence more likely. That’s why finding the right medicines and the right ways to cope with side effects is so important.

If you’re experiencing serious side effects from your medicine, don’t just stop taking it. Talk to your doctor about how you’re feeling. Ask if another medicine might work as well but have fewer side effects. You can also ask about ways to lessen side effects.

Acupuncture or other complementary therapies, such as yoga, massage and meditation, might ease your side effects. For more information about combining these practices with your standard treatment, read our Guide to Understanding Complementary Therapies.

Mao, Jun J.; Farrar, John T.; Bruner, Deborah. Electroacupuncture for Fatigue, Sleep, and Psychological Distress in Breast Cancer Patients With Aromatase Inhibitor-Related Arthralgia: A Randomized TrialCancer. Article first published online: July 30, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/cncr.28917.

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Hormonal Therapy
Insomnia and Fatigue
Depression and Anxiety